Painting can never be really contemporary. It has to have one eye on history - the history of art - and the other on how it will look in 30 years. Imagine buying a painting that made you laugh when you saw it in a gallery and then hanging it in your house. In 30 years, will you feel like a 60s academic explaining the faded Paolozzi screenprint in the dining room to his sceptical grandchildren?
The relief I feel when I see Liz Arnold's paintings is to do with the lifting of such an anxiety. Arnold on paper is the quintessential late-90s painter: self-mocking, decorative, fixated on jokey sci-fi. Arnold on canvas is something else. Although she's contemporary enough to record the details of this year's footwear fashions (Baudelaire said the painter of Modern life should pay more attention to fashion), the boots and hair in her paintings don't add up to an evocation of 'now'.
Arnold's paintings are as much about inventing a world as they are about the invention of worlds. Beauty Product (all works 1999) shows a brown spangly liquid spilling out of a bottle and forming a gilded pattern on the floor, an ornamental design which gradually spreads over the carpet. It's a tribute to the decorative impulse, full of out-of-synch 70s echoes such as the cork-patterned wall behind the bedhead. The window, however, is that of an ordinary housing estate, which lends the painting the feeling of someone trying on makeup to become someone else. Except here it is architectural space and interior decor that are being transformed. What you can see out of the window is not drab at all - huge sycamore buds wave in front of a Highland lake (Arnold is Scottish), in an ochre Autumn sunset.
The scientists in Redheads are mutating, giant tomato-people with huge eyelashes in a tank in a laboratory. The dark roof has red lights - you might mistake it for a starry heaven, as if nature is being replaced by art. The women scientists, whose faces we can't see, are dressed identically. The woman in the foreground messes up her hair as she puts an agitated hand to her head. Field Trip has more of the white-coated women scientists - except one of them is a monkey-like creature with a prehensile tail contemplating droopy green giant condom-tipped stalks in a rocky landscape.
Where is this place? Arnold's paintings are about pictorial space as a fictive space. Beach is a terrific painting in which pictorial illusion and flatness fight it out. The beach is at once a beach and an expanse of yellow, the painting an object and a dream. The point of the abstract quality of this beach, the huge, empty desirable yet inaccessible yellow, is that we cannot go there, any more than we can go to Liz Arnold's violet Island. Her tropical dreamland, a tourist poster made rich and textured, is as remote as the poster image of a Caribbean island that Al Pacino sees as he's dying at the end of Carlito's Way (1993), a Utopian non-place.
Arnold's paintings are about this place, which she sometimes depicts as a dream, sometimes as a nightmare, but always as a destination that has disappeared by the time you get there. Is this location a dangerous delusion? For Arnold it is. Another of her paintings, Cave Women, depicts scientists chipping away at the rocky walls of a cave. At the back of the cave stand two contemporary cars, either painted on a backdrop or preserved like prehistoric insects in amber. Or perhaps they are the scientists' cars, which puts us at the back of the cave as the objects of archeological curiosity. The fictions Arnold creates are so weirdly real and self-contained, that her scientists make us feel as out of time as contemporary cars will be in a few years.
It's painful to see the art of the 20th century disappear into the past. But I wouldn't be embarrassed to show an Arnold painting to someone in 30 years time. Her paintings are about what is contemporary in that they are about anachronism - the impossibility of ever getting to the new place because it will already have become old and the newness will be elsewhere.